Obama signals plans to use showbiz to rally grassroots
President Obama’s inaugural address included a call to end the bitter “spectacle of politics,” though he embraced all its pageantry and pomp on Monday.
James Taylor and Kelly Clarkson delivered star turns on the Capitol Hill platform, and Beyonce gave a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner that invited comparisons to Whitney Houston. But as Obama launches his second term, the question of just how much he will continue to draw on Hollywood takes on fresh relevancy. Obama has traveled to Los Angeles many times over the past four-plus years to raise money — a ritual he hardly craves but does out of necessity, by many accounts. Compared to the last Democrat to hold the office before him, Bill Clinton, Obama has been somewhat detached, engaging in little latenight courting and conversation with showbizzers. A recent dinner in the private quarters with the team behind “Lincoln” was an unusual gesture during his off time.
But many of Obama’s supporters say the president will continue to harness his connections within the entertainment industry even as he’s freed from the demands of fundraising in pursuit of another term. His inaugural address signaled a renewed commitment to tackling climate change and immigration reform and also included an unprecedented mention of gay rights and a repeat of his vow to push a major new initiative on gun control — all issues certain to engage many industry activists.
The recent announcement that the Obama campaign apparatus will continue on as Organizing for Action was perhaps a signal that showbiz figures will be used to rally grassroots support around issues the way they were deployed for his re-election effort.
Bruce Roberts, who along with Eric Ortner led the Entertainment Advisory Council for the campaign, said the president would “absolutely” continue to engage showbiz. That org helped organize industry figures — including at a meeting with Obama in fall 2011 — in roles as campaign surrogates, and Roberts said they are now talking about the next steps.
“He appreciates what we have done, and of course he will be” tapping showbiz, Roberts said from the steps of the Capitol before the swearing-in ceremony as the U.S. Marine Band played John Phillip Sousa. “Everything is being planned right now. Everything is being sorted out right now.”
Roberts added: “Hollywood and Washington are really two different animals, and they don’t really speak the same language half the time, but they have the same focus.”
In the immediate term, the administration is likely to continue to work with entertainment lobbying groups on the issue of gun violence, although Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent meetings signaled that media mayhem may not be subject to the same extensive focus as during the Clinton years. A lot of attention is expected to center on enhancing or promoting voluntary ratings for parents.
In the long term, Obama’s engagement with the industry is expected to continue to reflect the multiracial and multicultural coalition that was critical to his re-election.
The lineup of musical talent at Monday’s inauguration events — from Alicia Keys to Far East Movement to the cast of “Glee” — signals a continuing desire to spotlight diversity, particularly in the arts. The Obamas have revived PBS’ “In Performance at the White House” and have appointed many industry figures to an arts-policy committee. The choice of one of the inaugural co-chairs, Eva Longoria, was a recognition of the importance of a well-recognized figure who is forging a new role as a Latino activist.
Obama’s inaugural address also invoked, indirectly, the role the media can play in politics. And he alluded, as he has before, to the heated discourse that fills cable news and talkradio.
“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama said.
Some veteran Washington figures who have been pushing for compromise — even as the town descended into even greater gridlock — saw Obama’s inaugural address as infused with the message that even if post-partisanship fell short, in many ways change didn’t.
“He knows he can’t force the Republicans to do things, but he is going to try and he is going to use the power of this office, which is considerable, to move them in that direction,” said Matt Bennett, VP of public affairs and co-founder of Third Way, a centrist Democratic org. “But mentioning Stonewall, and mentioning gay equality that explicitly twice in an inaugural address, marks a sea change in American politics where these things went from being the fringes to literally in the center of what an inaugurated president was talking about in his address.”
Bennett’s org, along with WHC Insider and the Huffington Post, were co-hosting a party at the Old Ebbitt Grill, where the parade route could be viewed.
As revelers hovered around windows to wait for Obama’s motorcade, Bennett added: “Things have changed massively. I think that because we live in this hyperfast information age, where everyone believes they know everything, (current opinion) will be quite different from the judgment of history.”
That sense of history is what drove many to D.C. four years ago; this time around, the mood was different, a mixture of jubilation and perhaps a sense of relief.
Many in the media — accustomed to being placed toward the back — found themselves in the front row for the swearing-in. In fact, it was movie-theater close in that the view forced them to crane their heads. The lack of cell service prevented them from tweeting.
There was a bit of a sensation when Katy Perry and John Mayer, bundled up, arrived at the Capitol, stopped a bit in the media area and, hounded by cameras, left for apparently better seats.
Nevertheless, it was nothing like it was four years ago, when paparazzi’s telephoto lenses were aimed at the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi to catch candid shots.
Logistics were easier, too.
“I was here four years ago. Only I was in the purple tunnel of doom. We never got in,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby, and head of Nuns on the Bus, referring to the hundreds if not thousands of people who were stuck in a tunnel trying to get in, amid security hangups.
This time around, Campbell was up toward center-front.
“Four years ago, it was like, whoooo. this is great. This is exciting. We did it. Something happened. Now this year I think we realize what hard work we face, how we have got to come together as a nation — none of us can quit. In some ways the election was the easy work, and we have to do policy. And it is way more difficult, but all of us need to come together to do that.”
Elaine Greene brought eight members of her ministry org Sisters With Purpose, having arrived by bus from Brooklyn at 3 a.m. on Monday to make it in time. She was here in 2009 but didn’t want to miss the second inauguration of an African-American president.
“The first one was even more people, and they got emotional about the inauguration,” said Greene, the chair of the org. “This one is rejoicing, and glad to see he won. Before it was tears everywhere around.”
And what did she think of the ceremony the second time around?
“I kind of think it went on a little too long,” Greene said, laughing.
Maybe that’s the difference between spectacle and all of Monday’s pomp and circumstance. The former is fleeting. With the latter, it takes a bit of time to get to the final act.